The third Monday of February, which many Americans know as Presidents’ Day, is supposed to be a time to remember George Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday. And few would argue that the first U.S. president doesn’t deserve to be remembered; likewise for Abraham Lincoln, whose Feb. 12 birthday is also remembered by many on the same day.
But, while Presidents’ Day may be well and good in terms of historical recognition, Washington and Lincoln hardly need a special day to stay uppermost in Americans’ memories.
For other presidents, the matter of memorability is quite a different story, two recent studies have shown.
For a 2014 study published the journal Science, psychology researchers Henry L. Roediger and K. Andrew DeSoto had nearly 500 adults ages 18-64 write down the names of as many presidents as they could remember in five minutes, and the order in which they served, on a blank sheet of paper. ()
The list of the most memorable presidencies is unsurprising. Overall, the first five presidents — 94% remembered America’s first President George Washington — and the five most recent presidents. In terms of who they remember in the middle, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (both of whom were assassinated, and also associated with memorable eras in American history) also did well, remembered by 88% and 83% of the participants. It’s also not surprising that 60% would remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served for four terms, or that 82% of participants could recall Richard Nixon, who resigned because of Watergate. But having a historic presidency wasn’t always enough to jog participants’ memories; for example, though Gerald Ford remains the only man to serve in the office who was neither elected President nor Vice President, only 62% named him.
“Unless you are associated with a really famous event,” Roediger tells News time, “you will probably be forgotten.”
Participants had the most trouble recalling the 19th century presidents other than Lincoln. Chester Arthur was the worst-remembered president, with only 6.7% of participants being able to recall him, followed by Franklin Pierce (7.1%), and Millard Fillmore (8.2%).
Arthur, Pierce and Fillmore were also out of luck in Roediger and DeSoto’s second study.
For the follow-up paper, published in in 2016, the two ran another test in which they displayed the names of presidents and asked people if they recognized them. To further complicate things, the study, which was conducted online, also included the names of people who might sound like presidents — such as famous Americans, men who were Vice President and generic Anglo-Saxon male names — who never actually held the office. Participants selected “President” or “not-President” for each of 123 options. They also had to rate on scale of 0 to 100% how confident they were in their answer.
Only 46% of subjects recognized Arthur, 56% recognized Pierce and 65% recognized Fillmore. To add insult to injury for those forgotten presidents, significantly more people (71%, with 83% confidence) incorrectly thought that the first U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was a president than thought that these actual commanders-in-chief held the office.
The four other individuals who were “ more than 25% of the time” were vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and John Calhoun, American statesman Benjamin Franklin, and the generic name Thomas Moore. (Though there have been Congressmen named Thomas Moore, the paper noted, they weren’t particularly well known. History’s most famous person with a similar name would likely be Sir Thomas More, who advised King Henry VIII. He never, unsurprisingly, served as President of the United States.)
Testing yourself regularly is one proven method to counter this forgetfulness — and there many proven tricks to memorizing the presidents specifically. For example, “memory athletes” — and — have used an Ancient Greek technique that involves associating items you’re trying to remember with certain items in a room or on a walk. Another way to remember the names better is to actually learn more about what the forgotten presidents did. For example, if teachers pointed out that Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has recently been the subject of parallels drawn to modern immigration debates, would that help students remember him better?
As for the reasons behind these results, Roediger suggests that a lot of it has to do with which moments in history get the mass-media treatment in novels and movies, as that’s where many people get a lot of what they know about the past. The human tendency to remember recent events better than past events is also a big part of this.
Roediger and DeSoto predict that Harry S. Truman will be forgotten to the same extent as William McKinley by about 2040.